Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Le Mans (1971)

Le MansBeing an owner through the years of 3 previously available versions (Beta; LaserDisc; DVD) of this film, the primary question whenever a Blu-ray edition is announced of a catalog title produced 40 years ago, is whether the upgrade is worth investing in one more time. All too often has been the case during the early adoption phase of any new format, the answer at best, is maybe. Improved but due to the source materials and/or mastering methods used, perhaps not fully utilizing the capabilities available with the new technology during any expected learning curve.

While my media center isn't what one would consider esoteric, it is for most purposes a capable and representative home theater environment for many featuring a 65" Panasonic plasma display (custom settings but not fully calibrated), Pioneer Elite A/V receiver outputting to a matched JBL 7.1 speaker system about a year technologically obsolete this date.

Being a long time Porsche automotive enthusiast, a fan of both Steve McQueen and the 24 Hours of Le Mans motor race, I have certainly enjoyed multiple viewings of this film through the years and quite familiar with it both visually and sonically from beginning to end. There are multiple reviews available on different websites so with rare exception, the comments I express here will be limited to my personal opinions of CBS/Paramount's effort with this new offering.

Right on schedule, my new Blu-ray copies of Le Mans and Grand Prix arrived in the mail together as these two films were once again, "connected at the hip" as they have been through the decades. For the less than $18 you can acquire this Blu-ray from Amazon during its initial release period, my title for this post says it all: "Don't hesitate, it's Magnifique!"

One expects an improved image on Blu-ray but I was stunned at how cinematically the final image was. There is almost a perfect level of visual grain from beginning to end that creates what is so missing in many of today's CGI based motion pictures. The look of film! Special effects were all done in camera and look absolutely real in 1080P high definition. The colors are rich and vibrant even considering the conditions the 1 million original feet of film was shot using now, 4 decade old techniques. Flesh tones are spot on with Blacks deep and rich though there is occasional clipping during some of the night time scenes. The Gulf Blue on the Porsches are dead accurate having seen the actual 917's at their namesake's museum in Zuffenhausen.

The clarity in some shots are truly amazing in the level of detail shown and even exposing close ups (06:23) that were originally shot with the camera's zoom lens I suspect, unintentionally mis-set at its starting rack focus point. What some have described as "soft." As many times as I have seen this film, the greatly enhanced picture (at times, video bandwidth indicating 30-33 mbs+ output) allowed me to see unexpectedly, background detail that had escaped notice during my many previous viewings such as the Black paint flaking off the right windshield pillar in Delaney's Porsche (24:21) or the exposed rivets/screws in same location on the Ferrari 512's (23:23). Racecars are typically well worn devices and seeing detailing such as this adds greatly to the realism the film is attempting to create.

I also noticed for the very first time, B&W portraits of both Michael Delaney (McQueen at 59.28) and his main rival driving for Ferrari in the story, Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch at 1:00:24) hanging on the walls (Michael to the right of the sliding entry door; Erich's to the left of where Michael sits with Lisa) of the cafeteria where McQueen has about as much dialog as there is in any one section of the entire film. If CBS/Paramount used compression, it was very slight and one never sees any halo edge effects. They allowed the transfer to breathe and the visuals certain confirm that.

As impressive as the visual transfer is short of a full frame by frame restoration which means there were occasional scratches in the final print though few and far between, the new lossless 7.1 audio mix is its equal. The panning from one side of the room to the other (as well as rear to front) matching the cars going right to left on the screen was truly immersive during the driving sequences. While I wasn't expecting my subwoofer to be exercised anywhere close to Tron: Legacy, very pleasantly surprised whenever LFE was used. For someone that used to clean out record grooves with liquids and brushes before playing to minimize background noise (ticks, pops) while maximizing available dynamic range, two sections of the film truly validates the life like audio free from recording hiss offered here even when sourced from older analog masters. The first takes place at the start of the race from 25:54 when Michael closes the rear window in his 917 and one hears the rhythm of a beating heart increasing in rate until the flag is dropped to start the race (28:00). The second is a repeat of this same sonic theme after the Ferrari 512 crashes off the race course with the driver attempting to escape the pending explosion (1:08:10-1:08:47). With the noise floor so low, listen for the very subtle atmospherics throughout these and many other scenes which in a 7.1 system absolutely helps to create a sound field that has great width and depth completely enveloping the viewer. Consider it 3D for your ears and extremely effective. Overall, for the era this film came from, CBS/Paramount did an excellent and highly effective remix.

In the end, what most amazed me during my nearly two hours watching Le Mans again, was how completely and unexpectedly I had been pulled back into this racing spectacle during my viewing. The clarity of an updated Blu-ray worthy transfer, a new 7.1 lossless soundtrack, the perceived shortcomings from a lack of any dialog beyond the PA announcer in the background all contributed to producing for me, Steve McQueen's vision for his film: The physical and emotional experience of actually participating as a driver in the 24 Hours of Le Mans from the comfort of one's own neighborhood (home?) theater. Isn't that ultimately, the intended purpose of every motion picture.

Of all the classic race movies out there this is probably the most minimalistic and puristic one. Don't watch this movie for the rudimentary love story (if one can call it that way). Don't watch it for dialogue Steve McQueen does not speak more than a 100 words in this film I would guess. Watch this movie for the breath-taking drama that develops in the pictures, since in racing a picture says definitely more than a 1000 words. The camera work is outstanding, and the story is built in a very detail-minded, documentary-type style that matches the coolness of McQueens persona. We see his charcter develop almost entirely in his actions, in the powerful flashback to an accident a year ago that he reflects upon as he returns to the same scene on the same track. As he drives to the track, stops his Porsche at the scene of the accident and stares back into the past, we begin to understand what kind of a racer he is .We see the quiet, yet passionate rivalry between him and his major competitor for the title in the Le Mans 24 hour race and we see his equally quiet interaction with the widow of the fellow driver who perished in that fateful accident. While personal interactions are very subdued, the true passion erupts on the race-track and this movie is superb in this regard. We see a generous and well-filmed display of the greatest prototypes and road-racers out there at the time. If you are a race-fan, you must see this movie, if you are not, you probably won't get it. As a race fan I give 5 stars.

Buy Le Mans (1971) Now

I've heard nothing but bad comments about this film from film critics for years and nothing but GREAT comments from everyone else. The critics pan it for it's lack of dialog or less than spectacular storyline. What they are not seeing is that this was not a film that was written with a story in mind-it's a film that was built around an audio-visual and emotional event first. The storyline/dialog was added afterwards. Like one reviewer here wrote: "WHO CARES ABOUT THE STORY".

This film documents Les Vingt Quatre Heures Du Mans in the best possible way. It captures the pageantry, life, the speed and fury unlike any racing film I've ever seen (the only thing I can think of better, short of being a driver in the race, would be the release of the video game). It is the best documentary of what life at that circuit is like during those 24 hours-I know, I've been there.

If you've ever wanted to go to Le Mans, BUY THIS VIDEO. If you've ever heard of Le Mans but don't really know about it BUY THIS VIDEO. If you're a NASCAR fan BUY THIS VIDEO-there really is more to life than just driving in ovals-lots more!


Read Best Reviews of Le Mans (1971) Here

OK, how many of you are reading this review and will see this film because of its great dramatic reputation? Not many, I suppose. Le Mans is perhaps the truest film for pure racing, and racing fans. Along with Grand Prix, its perhaps one of the best films about racing ever done. There's very little dialog, and half of that is silly. There's a small attempt to add some drama, and this is put into context by the fact that Steve McQueen walks out on the girl to go back to the race....

McQueen plays an American driving for the Gulf Porsche team. His great rival is a German who drives for Ferrari, and evidently there was some drama between the two at the Nurburgring during a previous race. McQueen was also involved in a fatal accident the previous year, and its strongly implied he had a relationship with the driver's widow. She hangs around the pits of Le Mans almost like the angel of death, actually, until some attempt is made to insert romance in her relationship with McQueen.

The dialog is sparse, which is probably just as well; if you see this film, watch it for the racing. No other film captures the speed and drama of real racing as well as Le Mans. Much of the footage came directly from the race and was perfectly edited into the film: it all plays smoothly. The rest of the footage was shot with real cars and real drivers at real speed, and it shows. The result is almost a documentary on Le Mans.

There's a famous quote from former driver and sometime commentator Sam Posey. He was asked what was the fastest he's ever driven, and he replied that it was around 235mph on the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans (formerly the longest straight in motorsports) driving a Porsche 917. The person comments on the speed of the car, and Posey says that he really wasn't sure exactly how fast the car was it was still accelerating at the end of the straight! The point is that this film captures a good part of the awe and drama of the speed of the place. For anybody who loves racing, its not to be missed.

As to the DVD, the print has some small dirt specks and a little noise occasionally but is otherwise pretty good: the picture is nice and sharp, and color is quite good. The Dolby 5.1 soundtrack is perhaps one of the best remastering jobs on a 70's era film I've seen. Its not up to modern standards but its still really good.

So... 3 stars for the silly drama, 4 stars for the print and 5 stars for the racing. I'm guessing if your idea of racing is a bunch of loud cars going around in circles this isn't the film for you, but if you love it, this is an experience you'll enjoy and won't readily forget!

Want Le Mans (1971) Discount?

Do you like driving? Do you like Porsches? If you answered yes to either, you'll like Le Mans. It is virtually a documentary on the Le Mans 24 Hour race. Plenty of great racing footage, a mixture of scenes shot for the movie and actual footage from the 1970 event. The prototype sports cars from this era are quite stunning, resembling vehicles from a science fiction movie (lots of Porsches!). They hired "real" racing drivers to drive the cars, along with Steve McQueen himself, also an avid racer. (Note: One of the drivers crashed during a practice session and lost a leg; i.e., no "smoke and mirrors" here, this is the real thing.)

On the other hand, if you answered no to the questions above, there is little in this movie for you. The acting is pretty weak. There is a faint attempt to draw the viewer into the human drama of racing. I don't think most "non racers" will be captivated by any of this.

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